Over the past decade, vegan options have become ubiquitous on restaurant menus. However, there was a time when scrambling a meal from side dishes was how plant-eaters got by in restaurants.
This was the case with Eleni Vlachos who, along with her friend Chef Shirle, were inspired to start the first Vegan Chef Challenge (VCC) in 2010 as a way to make sure all vegan options were available to everyone. The idea here was to challenge the chefs of a few restaurants in Durham, NC to create vegan dishes for a month, inspiring healthy competition and offering exciting new plant-based options to local diners.
After the initial challenge proved successful, other activists realized their hometowns also lacked vegan options, and VCC gained traction. Eventually, the grassroots campaign exploded in popularity, with organizers wanting to get involved across the country.
In 2019, the non-profit Vegan Outreach joined after finding synchronicity with VCC in its mission to mainstream veganism by making it easy for everyone to choose plant-based foods.
“All of our programs are actually not for vegans. They’re for non-vegans,” Jackie Va, director of food events at nonprofit Vegan Outreach tells VegNews. “We’re trying to find ways to make it easier for you to go vegan.”
In 2023, VCCs will roll out to more than 20 cities to engage the community around vegan food, giving restaurants impacted by the pandemic a chance to offer customers something new to get excited about. “It really brings the community together and is about bringing non-vegans to the table to try vegan options,” says Va.
Vegan Chef Challenge ignites the vegan scene in Sacramento
Activist Bethany Davis organized the first West Coast VCC in Sacramento in 2011 with about 10 restaurants participating. “He was based in Sacramento for a while and built up a huge following over time,” Davis tells VegNews.
At all of these events, chefs are tasked with preparing at least three new dishes for diners to sample all month before voting on their favourites. Each VCC is different and features unique opportunities for spin-offs like burger and pie-baking battles or appropriate themes for New Year’s Resolutions time in January or Earth Month in April.
After a few successful VCC events, attendees kept the momentum going with fun spin-offs. “We had a restaurant that started an annual murder mystery dinner that was all vegan,” Davis says. “We had another restaurant throwing an annual vegan Super Bowl party.” In 2016, the VCC got an additional media boost when Paul McCartney, a vocal vegetarian, headlined the first show at Sacramento’s newly opened Golden 1 Center arena.
The event really took off when Sacramento-based Vegan Outreach came on board in 2019, giving organizers access to its resources to support growth. Since then, Davis has also helped VCC challenges get off the ground in the Twin Cities, Santa Barbara, Reno and Contra Costa County.
In 2022, the Sacramento VCC featured a record-breaking 50 restaurants, a testament to the culture the initiative is building around plant-based food in the California capital.
“He helped change awareness and the face of vegan cuisine in Sacramento,” says Davis.
Davis is currently working on the VCC in Olympia, WA which runs February 1-28 with a dozen different attendees from ice cream parlors to Italian restaurants. Here, chefs have created exciting vegan favorites like Vegan Barbecue Chicken (The Oyster House); Spinach Enchiladas (Mi Pueblo); and Blueberry Cheesecake Cupcakes (Miss Moffett’s Mystic Cupcakes); and more.
While there is a winning element to the challenge, the best dishes are chosen in fun and diverse categories to encourage friendly competition and community building, rewarding chefs for their creativity through real printed prizes.
VCC faces the challenges of COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on the restaurant industry nationwide, and VCC’s efforts have also been impacted, with many events having to switch to a take-out model or stop altogether. Despite some setbacks, organizers held nine VCCs in 2022, seven of which were inaugural events.
Davis says participating in the VCC is a boon for restaurants as they can use their vegan dishes and awards as differentiators.
“When restaurants operate on a perfect three to five profit margin, every little perk that can increase that profit margin is in their favor,” he says. “It’s not just vegans who order food.”
And these challenges really infuse cities with permanent vegan options. Data compiled by Vegan Outreach shows that 53% of last year’s 170 participating businesses added at least one vegan dish, or an entire vegan section, to their menus. 2022 also marked Mobile, AL’s first VCC, and all 15 participating businesses added a permanent vegan option to their menus.
“It’s a little more difficult to get restaurants to sign up because they’re short on kitchen staff and don’t want to put something else on their plate for their chefs to do,” Davis says.
“That said, eggs are very expensive right now,” she says. “Why not do something different?”
Revitalizing the restaurant industry with vegan food
In 2023, the challenge is back in full force and is an opportunity for participating restaurants to appeal to customers in a whole new way
In Sacramento, prior to attending the VCC, El Papagayo had a minimum number of vegan diners. Following its participation in the VCC, the restaurant claims that around 75% of its clientele are vegan. At VCC participant Wild Rooster Bistro in Fair Oaks, Calif., the challenge attracted 200 new customers and sold more than 300 VCC specials.
“Companies definitely acquire new customers. Vegans will drive for vegan options,” Va says. “It feels so good for chefs to get recognition from a community they haven’t thought of before.”
Vegan Outreach’s turnkey support, which includes funding, social media tools, printed materials, and templates, has been instrumental in growing VCC nationwide and has inspired volunteers to organize events across the country. By collecting ratings and other review data, Vegan Outreach also provides restaurants with valuable insights they can leverage to build customer loyalty.
Within the VCC are other resources, including Vegan Outreach’s 10 Days to Vegan program, which helps people transition to a plant-based lifestyle with tools for support. This program saw 200 entries in 2022 from diners who attended VCC.
Due to the grassroots nature of these events, VCCs are making plant-based food a little more accessible in areas where it’s needed most, all while bringing attention to vegan causes and animal sanctuaries while also advocating local businesses.
“Field organizers are developing relationships with restaurant owners, managers, and chefs,” Davis says. “It’s those relationships, as well as participating in the challenge, that help those restaurants [and chefs] have a positive experience and be willing to open up and participate year after year…the people on the ground are helping to build relationships between local restaurants and the vegan community as well.”
February, VCC events will also be held in Anchorage AK, Santa Fe NM and Central Arkansas; with Detroit, MI, Knoxville, TN, South East Bay, CA in March; and Yolo County, CA (UC Davis Area) and Dallas Fort Worth, TX expected in April. To wrap up the year, the Challenges will take over Huntsville and Mobile, AL; Topeka, SK; Albuquerque, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas; Washington DC; Sacramento, CA; and Santa Barbara, CA.
Vegan Outreach has a simple portal with information, educational resources and tools to help anyone interested in setting up their own VCC in their hometown.
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Anna Starostinetskaya is Senior News Editor at VegNews and always keeps an eye out for all things vegan in her hometown of San Francisco, California and everywhere else.